Ford wages a 'war for talent'
Neel Mehta, Ford Motor Co.: "They grow people within. People rotate, which is very common. They want you to grow by your number of experiences. ... The tools and the acknowledgment by leadership that you don't have to be in the office to be productive were more than I expected."
Photo credit: JOE WILSSENS
DETROIT -- In 2009, Neel Mehta was a freshly minted MBA from Duke University and was entertaining job offers from computer maker Dell Inc. and global consulting firm A.T. Kearney.
Then, during a recruiting event on Duke's campus in Durham, N.C., Mehta came across a Ford Motor Co. rep, and his career plan quickly changed.
Mehta, 31, recalls: "He was talking about how every Friday, just to balance his work and life, he'd work from home. It resonated with me that I'd have a work-life balance."
So Mehta moved to Detroit to take an information technology management job at Ford.
Many white-collar workers share Mehta's desire to balance their professional and personal lives. High-tech companies such as Dell and Google Inc. offer flexible hours, telecommuting, job sharing and career coaches. So Ford, which is trying to shed its image as a Rust Belt corporation with a stuffy culture of suits and long work hours, faces a serious challenge to recruit and retain top talent.
While Ford a generation ago attracted the top business-school graduates, it now fights for favor. As one workplace researcher, David Ulrich, says, there is a "war for talent."
"Ford used to get the best," says Ulrich, a professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and a partner at RBL Group, a human resources firm. "The auto industry doesn't have the sex appeal that the high-tech industries do."
In response, Ford has created tools to let employees work flexible hours and telecommute. It has expanded job-sharing projects and offers career coaches. And it has consulted with Google, the epitome of the new-age employer, about how to improve workplace culture.
"I do believe if we sit down three or four years from now, it's going to feel really different at Ford around work-life flexibility," says Felicia Fields, Ford's group vice president of human resources and corporate services.
She adds: "Ford needs it, and our employees need it."
A life on hold
Mehta needed it for him to accept the job at Ford.
He says that when he received his MBA, "Ford wasn't really on my radar. It was more the Dells and Microsofts."
But Mehta was a newlywed. And the native of Mumbai, India, who had lived in Dallas, Atlanta and Raleigh, N.C., was ready to settle down.
"If I'd gone into consulting, I'd be traveling four out of five days a week," he says. "That kind of puts your life on hold to do your career, and I didn't want to do that."
Ford offers Mehta flexibility to work nontraditional hours or remotely, including from home, when necessary. Ford also assigned him a career coach who helps him set and reach job-related goals and find advancement opportunities in the company.
"They grow people within," Mehta says. "People rotate" through job responsibilities, "which is very common. They want you to grow by your number of experiences."
Mehta was surprised, too, that Ford issues many employees audio and data conferencing accounts, smart phones and laptops. Mehta says he worked nine years for an IT company and never had such tools provided for him.
"The tools and the acknowledgment by leadership that you don't have to be in the office to be productive were more than I expected," Mehta says.
Ford's golden era
U.S. automakers are wrongly viewed as lagging in technology, a Google manager says.
"The Big 3 are saddled with the reputation of being slow, making things people don't want and having bad relations with the unions," says Jake Parrillo, Google's Midwest manager of communications who has consulted with Ford on workplace culture.
"But," he adds, "the Big 3 are our most innovative partners."
Ford once topped the job-consideration lists of many Ivy League graduates. That traces back to the Whiz Kids, a group of young U.S. Army Air Force management experts that Henry Ford II hired after World War II.
The Whiz Kids drove Ford to become an example of the modern American corporation run by analytical, ambitious organization men. But with that came the reputation for a rigid corporate culture.
That corporate culture lasted until the 1990s, when a generation of workers who once suited up to work long hours and postponed life's pleasures until they could enjoy a cushy retirement started to fade away, the University of Michigan's Ulrich says.
"The millennials grew up with parents who did that, parents who didn't go to the movies with them and didn't coach their soccer team. They say, "I don't want that,'" Ulrich says. "The older generation is work-life, the younger generation is life-work. "We'll work, and it might be 60 hours, but it'll be any 60 hours we choose.'"
Business casual pajamas
Meanwhile, Ford faced a practical matter that forced the company to deal with flexible hours and telecommuting.
In 2006 CEO Alan Mulally created One Ford -- a strategy that integrates Ford's global offices. As a result, many employees often confer with colleagues in different time zones.
So in 2008 Ford created Digital Worker, a set of tools that allows employees to work remotely.
"If you have a conference with someone in China, you can use Digital Worker tools on your laptop to, for example, do WebEx conferencing and still be in the comfort of your own home, in your pajamas if you like," says Marcy Klevorn, Ford's director of global information technology operations.
Digital Worker consists of audio, data and video conferencing programs. It also offers ePOD, or e-mail on personally owned devices. With ePOD a worker can synchronize a personally owned iPad or phone to Ford's data system.
Digital Worker makes it possible for Ford employees to telecommute up to four days a week, Fields says. Worker benefits are less stress, less commute time, a reduced carbon footprint and the ability to work odd hours more easily, she says.
But it benefits Ford, too. "It allows people to be more productive," Fields says.
Photo credit: JOE WILSSENS
Transition turns permanent
While some employees need to work remotely or at nontraditional hours, others need to work fewer hours.
In the 1990s, some Ford workers said: "I really don't want to give up on my career, but I have a need to be at home part-time," Fields recalls.
So in the mid-1990s Ford began a transitional work arrangement that let employees reduce their work hours. Today, Ford has 658 employees doing transitional work arrangements, Fields says.
It is called transitional because it was intended to be a reduced schedule for a fixed amount of time, with the employees returning to full-time status. But many participants never did, Fields says.
"So we don't view it as a transition anymore," she says. "It's just a way of life for people who appreciate that level of flexibility."
Part of making such programs work required a cultural shift, Fields says. Managers have had to drop the traditional notion that an employee has to log in long hours in the office to be effective. Instead, she says, employees are judged by their production rather than their office presence.
Job sharing is another form of a transitional work arrangement.
That's what Celeste Woebkenberg, 47, and Kim Scholtz, 46, have done together for the past 10 years.
The women, both self-described extroverts, have shared several different jobs at Ford and Ford Motor Credit Co. They now share the title co-human resource manager for Ford North American design.
Woebkenberg, a mother of three, was coming off maternity leave about 10 years ago. She wanted to work part-time, and that's when she partnered with Scholtz.
Scholtz was one of Ford's first job-sharing employees. She had been sharing a job for five years before partnering with Woebkenberg in 2001. Scholtz wanted to work part-time at Ford so she could spend more time with her retired husband.
Without sharing, the women estimate a stand-alone job could take at least 50 hours a week. Scholtz wonders about the effect of such a job on her marriage and calls job sharing "a godsend."
Woebkenberg adds: "It would have been a completely different life for me without it. When I had my first child, I really didn't want to come back to work unless it was part-time. I might not have come back."
Internet giant Google has a suburban Detroit office that works with the auto industry on issues such as work practices, Google's Parrillo says.
"We share cultural things and how we approach things," Parrillo says. "We're almost in a consulting role in that we learn from them and they learn from us on how we approach everything."
One interesting Google program is "20 percent time or 20 percent projects," Parrillo says. It started with the realization that people are more productive when doing something they enjoy, he says. The program lets employees spend 20 percent of their time, or about one day a week, working on a task separate from their day-to-day job. In fact, that's how Gmail was created, Parrillo says.
"You can present the project over time, and if managers see value in it, you can actually spin it into a real team and make it happen," Parrillo says.
No free lunch
Google is known for offering a casual work environment that allows flying discs, bicycles and dogs in the office. It also serves free meals to employees. But all this fun has a purpose: It keeps employees working constantly.
"Let's say a manager and employee go out for lunch. It's a 20-minute drive there, plus eating, then a 20-minute drive back. That's 40 minutes of unproductive time," Parrillo says. "If an engineer and salesperson can eat lunch together here and solve a problem, then the lunch we paid for just paid for itself. It's a collaboration process. And a happy employee is a motivated employee."
Parrillo says automakers understand that attracting and keeping the best people requires ensuring not only that people have flexible time but that they work on important projects.
Considering that the Detroit 3 don't offer the high salaries and job security that they once did, a flexible work culture and career growth are vital in attracting national talent, says Alec Levenson, senior research scientist at the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California.
"You look at Google, and they offer all these free services -- if someone can have all that, plus compensation and a job that excites them -- if they can have it all, the person will pick the more flexible one," Levenson says.
Fields says Ford's work-life flexibility has increased the automaker's "value proposition" as a company. She says it has been a factor for many new hires.
"You'd be amazed at what flexible work hours mean to people who want to hit the gym first thing in the morning and not be in until 9 or so," Fields says.
Or, as in Mehta's case, just to have a family life along with a career.
You can reach Jamie LaReau at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Follow Jamie on